Writer: Ben Tagoe
Director: Aisha Khan
Reviewer: Beverley Haigh
Freedom Studios was established in Bradford to reflect the diversity of the city and to produce work that resonates with, and who are often underrepresented in society. Their latest piece When We Were Brothers tackles the issue of male mental health; a subject that has become more prominent, especially in the media over the past few years, rather than something that has previously been ignored, thanks to the tireless campaigning of support groups such as Andy’s Man Club.
This latest venture takes place at Bradford’s live music venue, The Underground, in another of Freedom Studios triumphs in site-specific work. Following their 2015 offering, Brief Encounters at Bradford Interchange, which took the bus station as its backdrop for the characters to reveal their stories, similarly When We Were Brothers is perfectly suited to this public platform; an intimate, slightly grungy dimly lit bar. As part of a Pay What You Decide scheme, the piece escapes the confines of traditional theatre, stripping it back to reveal the rawness of the subject matter and the relationships.
Tommo (Philip D McQuillan) and Danny (Levi Payne) have been friends for years. Since they were seven and Danny won Tommo’s respect in a fight. The hour-long piece follows them through their slightly deprived northern upbringings and shared experiences: clubbing together, first girlfriends, exams and racial abuse, before Danny’s aspirations lead him to university in London and Tommo stays behind in a job as a manual labourer.
Supported only by Tommo’s mum, Julie (Vanessa Pound) the story unfolds and is told mostly through a series of monologues, exploring the fragility of all the relationships. Tommo and Danny, despite having been friends most of their lives can only have superficial conversations and never discuss the issues that matter; Julie, a single mum of Tommo loves her son but resents him for the loss of her youth and is fearful of Danny moving away and deserting Tommo, which in turn leaves Tommo dependent on her again. All three cast members give sterling and memorable performances that never falter: Levi Payne is gentle and endearing as Danny; Philip D McQuillan convincing as tough-nut Tommo and Vanessa Pound slightly sour-faced with gritty northern attitude as Julie.
Writer Ben Tagoe was compelled to explore the issue of male mental health and friendship following the suicide of a friend, which made him start reassessing how men display their vulnerability and how comfortable they are with it. However, he was adamant that he wasn’t going to create a depressing piece and flickers of humour shine through, particularly in the scene when the pair are clubbing and Danny wants to tell his mate how much he loves him, despite Tommo’s unease with it.
The most poignant aspect of When We Were Brothers is the unabashed normality of the story – a regular tale of childhood – mental health can strike anyone. Abandoned by his father when he was young (mother Julie admits she can understand he felt too young, although she, on the other hand, had no choice), an overly masculine Uncle Trevor (“a bullying prick”) as the only male role model, grief struck at his grandad’s funeral and getting stoned at 16: Tommo is constantly reminded ‘boys don’t cry’. Although Tommo’s depression is not dissected or explored in any great depth, the piece is not looking for answers to mental health issues; it is merely a device to get people talking. Through his writing, Tagoe explores the diverse ways of dealing with complex emotions: Danny retreats, Tommo gets violent, but as they take their different paths, it is friendship that endures. There is no happy ending, but it’s getting better.
Runs until 5th May 2018 | Image: Sophie Giddens